Monday, March 1, 2010

Cooking Q & A: Finally!

Whew! I'm finally posting the answers to your cooking questions.

I had SO much fun reading through your questions as they came in last week, and even more fun answering them. You all asked some great questions - and on a wide range of cooking (and other!) topics.

I did my best to answer your questions as truthfully and as knowledgeably as I could. Some of them I'll be elaborating on in future blog posts. You gave me some great ideas for things to post about.

SO, here we go.

Do you worry about BPA in cans? Do you avoid using canned food because of this? I find it difficult to find good replacements for condensed soup that I use in recipes sometimes, like a can of tomato soup or canned tomatoes.

Actually, it isn't something that I worry about. And, I don't avoid canned foods because of it. I have only read very limited information about it, but it's my understanding that the FDA has backed away from previous statements that BPA is safe, and is currently doing more intense research on it. At this point, the limited exposure that my family would encounter from the few canned goods that we use while the investigation is going on does not concern me enough to completely cut out all canned food.

As far as replacements for soups, I rarely use canned soups. Most soups (cream soups, especially) that are commonly found in recipes can be made very easily from scratch. For example, many chicken pot pie recipes call for "cream of chicken soup". I make my own creamy sauce from scratch in my SG's Chicken Pot Pie recipe, using chicken bouillon or soup base, and the sauce is fresh and homemade. Perhaps I can spend some more time on this in a separate post about cream soups/sauces that I make from scratch on a regular basis.

I would like to know what size your blue Le Creuset is...and if that is still your favorite size.

My new Le Creuset pot/dutch oven is 6 3/4 quarts and oval. I carefully evaluated every size, and thought this one would be the perfect "all-purpose" size. The oval shape is perfect for roasts. And, almost everything I make, from small batches to triple batches can be made in it. Since it's the only one I currently own, it's my favorite. I would love to have a 3 quart round for making smaller side dishes and sauces. That one is next on my wish list.

Your food photographs are always impressive. I know it's difficult to take the time to compose a perfect shot and I know it's even more difficult when food is involved. You've shared photography tips before, but do you have any specific tips for food photography (lighting, lenses, editing, etc.)? Do I need to start saving for a DSLR camera? I do my best on my blog with my Canon point and shoot.

First of all, thank you so much! I have been working on ideas for a food photography post, and will try to get myself in gear and get it posted. But, YES, YES, YES, start saving for a DSLR. It will be worth every penny and you simply cannot get the quality of shot with a point-and-shoot that you can get with a DSLR.

As for lighting, I try to use natural light as much as possible. I love taking my dishes outside when the weather is warmer and photographing them on my deck. There is just no replacement for natural light. But, since I'm cooking after dark most nights, I use an external flash, and it helps with creating the light that I want.

I love my 50 mm/1.8 lens for my food shots. I'll talk more about this in a separate food photography post, but the "final" shots you see of my dishes are always taken with my 50 mm/1.8.

I also covered a lot of photography-related questions in my post titled, "Lights, Camera, Lenses."

If I come live in your guest room and do all your cleaning and laundry will you cook for me every single day?

I have often said that one of my dream jobs would be as a personal chef. I'd love to create special meals every night for a busy family. But, for now, for this season of my life, I've got three little boys and an appreciative husband who keep me at the stove and creating their favorites. I love being their personal chef.

Do your boys bother you while you cook? It seems like my boys act up right before dinnertime, and it makes cooking so stressful. How do you keep your boys entertained during that time? Any secrets to make that time less stressful?

Yes, they bother me. Yes, they fight and wrestle and the baby pulls at my pants legs, and I am often times ready to pull my hair out during dinner prep time. That hour before my husband comes home? Oh heavens, it's the hardest hour of my day. Kids just seem to know you're at your wits end during this time. BUT, I've found a few things that work for me that help me get dinner on the table every night.

1. Get them involved. Here's the thing - I'm convinced that my kids freak out at 4:30pm because they know I'm cooking and not paying any attention to them. So, I let them help with easy tasks - getting out oil, cream cheese, vegetables from the fridge - things I know they can do. They feel so special just doing these simple things.

2. Give them "food" to play with. It is amazing how long my kids are entertained with some dry macaroni and a set of measuring cups. Set them up at the counter or kitchen table with spoons and bowls and measuring cups and beans and macaroni and let them play while you're cooking.

3. After all, it's just a mess. Allowing kids to help/play makes a mess. It just does. BUT, it's just a mess. I'm tired at the end of the day and don't feel like dealing with additional mess more than anyone else, but as a mother, I will forget the mess. I won't forget the memories the boys and I have made in the kitchen. (For more tips, see this post on Baking with Tiny Tots.)

My cookies keep coming out flat. I was using Costco Pure vanilla. So I switched back to McCormick real vanilla. It worked! the only ingredient that seemed different was there was corn syrup in the McCormick? are not all vanilla's equal? Is there such a thing as one that is too rich? If so, how do you use it in baking then?

That is very interesting about Costco vs. McCormick vanilla. One thing that commonly happens with bulk vanilla is that since most people aren't using it every day, or even every week, it expires and goes bad before all of it gets used. I'm not sure if this is the case in the Costco vs. McCormick scenario you mentioned, but it would explain the difference.

That being said, all vanillas are not created equal. You can buy very expensive vanilla that is made from better vanilla beans and is better quality than less expensive brands, and many experienced cooks will often say, "make sure you use good quality vanilla." However, most will also say that you primarily notice the difference when vanilla is used in drinks or ice cream or things when it is NOT baked - and that when added to a baked good, virtually no one can tell the difference. Since discovering it, I use and love Costco's vanilla several times a week, and have never had an issue with it.

Do you have a pizza sauce recipe? What are your favorite kid recipes that pass even the picky eater test? Do you know how to make hummus? When are you going to publish a cookbook so I can buy it? =)

I do not have a pizza sauce recipe. The main reason for this is that when we make homemade pizzas (usually Grilled Pizza), I use fresh or canned crushed tomatoes as our sauce - then add a bit of oregano to it. I love the fresh taste it adds to pizza.

Hummus? I have never made it from scratch, but it's definitely one of those things I plan to learn to make. I absolutely love it.

Publish a cookbook? It's my dream. I truly hope one day to publish one. I'm currently plugging away at perfecting my original recipes, learning how to cook and bake better, and developing my skills. You all are SO helpful and encouraging in trying my recipes and telling me which ones you really like. And, the ones you don't like so much. I love your feedback and you keep me going.

Here are a few of my favorite kid recipes that we eat around here on a regular basis:

Buttermilk Pancakes
Homemade Pasta Sauce
Chicken Pot Pie
Sweet and Spicy Steak
Mom's Roast Beef and Creamy Mashed Potatoes

My kids love each and every one of those. But, those are just a few. This is another great idea for a post - Kid Grub!

I'm dying to try your roasted red pepper cream sauce during lent this year - can I substitute the jarred peppers with peppers I roast in the oven? Or will that change the flavor?

Yes, you can definitely roast your own peppers. I'm currently working on a recipe that uses roasted peppers and I can't wait to share it with you all when I get it just how I want it. There is nothing like the flavor of fresh, roasted peppers - it would be great in that sauce.

Thanks for doing this. This is a stupid question. I grew up mostly vegetarian but now eat meat. I never cooked meat though before and I feel dumb asking anybody this. When I cook boneless chicken breasts do I have to do anything to it when it comes out of the package? That sounds weird, but sometimes there are white parts that I'm not sure if they should be cut out or not. If so, how do you do that? I tried and made a mess and threw the whole thing away. Yeah, I'm hopeless, right?

First of all, that's not a stupid question at all. Most of the time, I buy Purdue chicken breast that is already trimmed and ready to go right out of the package. However, if I do buy store-brand chicken breast, I always trim off the white parts. Kitchen shears work great for trimming chicken breast. You just snip off the white parts. A regular kitchen knife works great, too.

Baking seems so volatile! I love to cook and enjoy baking some but when I venture out it usually doesn't end up great....baking seems so much more difficult to do well. I would love help with PIE CRUST. I try every year during the holidays and it's rough to say the least! Same with homemade breads (a little better but still difficult!). Thanks for blessing us all with your gifts - what a treat to read your real recipes and be encouraged to keep growing in our work at home....

Baking is volatile. It can be so frustrating - especially when trying new recipes. I wrote and posted a tutorial last year on How to Make Perfect, Flaky Pie Crust. I know how frustrating pie crust can be, but I think if you try this method, you'll find it really works and your pie crust will turn out every single time.

As for homemade bread, I do make fresh, homemade rolls from time to time, but I haven't yet posted the recipe. My mom just recently gave me the recipe that I grew up on, and I hope to share that soon. Most of the time, I make Homemade Beer Bread. No rising, no kneading, and my kids and husband love it. I could eat a whole loaf.

Sarah, I would love to know how you plan your menus for shopping at the store. I try to do this and go shopping once a week, but I almost always fail and have to make multiple trips during the week. Any advice would be great. I have tried a number of recipes on your blog and have loved them all. Hope you are feeling great and enjoying your pregnancy.

I'm working on a blog post on this very topic. I hope to get it posted this week or next. (Sorry for delaying the answer, but I'm trying to cover most of what I do in that post.)

What are the "must always have on hand items" like a pantry list?

Let's see. Things I always have in my pantry:

All of the essentials for baking: flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda. And, of course, chocolate chips.
I try to keep crushed and diced tomatoes at all times so that I can make my homemade pasta sauce on any given night.
Canned veggies, olive oil, black beans, a variety of pastas. Really, my pantry varies from week to week, but these are things I always have on hand. Oh, and Stove Top Stuffing. (I LOVE it!)

Basically, if you have a couple of go-to meals (meals you can make without a recipe card that your whole family loves), you want to keep those pantry ingredients stocked. That way, on nights when you just can't deal with dinner, you can whip up a quick meal. In our house, it's spaghetti.

Do you cook differently for kids? Do you make them eat what you serve?

I do not cook differently for my kids. They eat what we eat. This was the rule in my house growing up, and this is the rule for my kids. However, we do not "force" them to eat a whole plateful of the food I make. It might be 3 bites of meat, 3 bites of veggies. And, they don't get up from the table until they've finished those bites. Of course, they don't get dessert unless they finish their entire plate.

I understand why parents cook differently for their kids - mealtime can be such a battle. I think this is a decision each family has to make for themselves.

How do you seed a tomato? How do you even dice a tomato neatly? I would love pictures with this one!

Would you believe that I don't like fresh tomatoes? I don't. Not at all. So, I rarely buy them. If I am going to use fresh tomatoes, and need to get rid of the seeds/some of the juice, I just slice it in half, and squeeze it over the kitchen sink. That gets rid of most of them.

The key to neatly dicing a tomato is all about the knife. If you have a dull knife, it will just squish the tomato and the juice will squirt out all over the place when you try to slice it. If you have a sharp, good quality knife, you'll be able to easily slice and dice a tomato without turning it into tomato mush.

How do you cook with THREE BOYS underfoot? I can barely get dinner made every night!! Do you let your boys help? Brady is 2 and it's hard to get him involved but I'm sure there are ways. What are your tips for keeping them occupied while you cook?

I think I answered a variation of this question above. Maybe this is another question that I can elaborate more on in a separate blog post.

Why do my cookies come out flat sometimes? I follow the recipe exact and they still come out flat, what am I doing wrong?

There are so many reasons that cookies can come out flat. Variations in your oven temperature and expired baking powder are just two of them. But, I have found that if I substitute shortening for 1/2 of the butter in a cookie recipe, my cookies generally won't go flat. Shortening is more stable than butter, and won't collapse like butter does. Mom's Chocolate Chip Cookies are never flat - and I'm convinced it's because 1/2 of the fat in them is shortening.

Do you ever swap reduced fat or light versions for the original in dishes that call for sour cream, mayo, or cream cheese? Some of us aren't as lucky at staying thin as you are!

Never, ever, ever. I always use full fat versions. Here's my take on it - I would rather eat a small amount of something that is full fat, delicious, and filling, than eat a plateful of something that isn't. And, I truly believe when you use "light" versions of ingredients, you are more tempted to eat more just because you justify in your mind that you used "light" ingredients, and therefore eat more than you need to. Further, fat fills you up. One to two regular chocolate chip cookies are enough for me. But, give me a box of Snackwells or something like that, and I'm still hungry after I've polished off an entire box.

I know I've said this before, but for me, it's all about portion control. I'd rather spend my life eating the delicious foods I really love, and eat smaller portions of them, than eat plate after plate of food that I just don't enjoy.

Is there a way you can list your recipes by food type to make finding one easier? Like: poultry, seafood, vegetarian, etc.

I think this is a great idea, and I'll get working on that!

What's the "gr" stand for?

GR stands for Grand Rapids - the town here in the Midwest where I currently live.

I buy a lot of fruit and vegetables and then I don't eat them and they go bad. Can I freeze most fruits and vegetables before they go bad? How would I then use them? Also, how do you organize your kitchen? I have so many gadgets and dishes in crazy places. :)

I actually don't ever freeze my fruits and veggies, though I know you can. For example, I have a friend who chops onions and keeps them in the freezer and pull them out when she need them. But, I actually grocery shop every week, so I only buy the produce that I need for that week. If I find that I have extra veggies at the end of the week, I make quesadillas to use them up. And, if I have extra fruit, I make my favorite muffins with whatever I have left.

Organizing my kitchen - Oh, boy. I am the last person to give advice/suggestions on this one. I am the most disorganized person I know. One thing I do is have all of my spatulas, spoonulas, pasta fork, ladles, etc. in a very handy place. In my current kitchen, it's the drawer right below my stovetop. In the past, it's been a pitcher or large canister next to the stove. I like to have all of those things within an arms reach when I'm cooking on the stove.

Most importantly, you have to find a system that works for you. That sounds like a cop-out, but truly, each kitchen is as different as we are, and what might work in one kitchen just wouldn't work in another.

When you say you came up with a great recipe, did you do it from scratch or do you combine recipes that you've already done?

This is a fantastic question, and a great one to end on. I think it's easier to say what an original recipe is not.

An original recipe (or one I say, "I came up with", "my recipe", etc.) is not a recipe from the internet that I've changed by one or two ingredients. It's not a slightly modified recipe from Betty Crocker or Better Home and Gardens or some other cookbook. If I ever make a recipe from a cookbook or an online recipe and change it slightly, I give credit to the person who actually came up with the recipe. For example, this recipe for Chicken Picatta is from Ina Garten, and I just altered it to the way I liked it. I gave her credit because it is indeed her recipe.

So, what is an original recipe? Chicken Bacon Caesar Calzones is a good example. I went to Costco, and came home and created the best version I could of the chicken bake. That's my recipe. I came up with all of the measurements, ingredients, and instructions. SG's Baked Ziti is another good example. I was browsing through the Target refrigerated section and thought I'd make spaghetti for dinner. I found out that my Target doesn't sell sausage - the meat I use in my pasta sauce. But, they do sell bacon. So, I thought, "Hmm. What if...?" Next to the bacon was the cheese. I spotted the feta and looked down at the bacon in my cart. Bacon and feta? What if...? And, that's how SG's Baked Ziti was born. I just combined flavors that I loved and created this dish. This is another example of one of "my recipes".

On this blog, I mostly post original or family recipes. If I make something from the internet or a cookbook, even if I change it, I will always post the source.

Of course, with the internet hosting millions and millions of recipes, you might scour the internet and find a baked ziti recipe that also uses feta cheese and bacon - I'm not sure. But, to the best of my knowlege and in the spirit of honoring all creative cooks that work hard to be original, I came up with the combination on my own and feel confident in calling it my own.


Thank you all for your questions. I don't know everything about kitchen-y stuff, but I hope I was able to help you all in some small way.

I hope, if nothing else, that when you visit this little blog of mine, that you are inspired to get in the kitchen, try something new, and love on your family and friends through the good food you're creating and serving them.


  1. I thought you were in GR, me too :) Thanks for all the answers, I'm looking forward to some of the future posts you mentioned! I have loved all of the recipes I have tried from your site, thanks for sharing!!

  2. thanks for the great tips. If you publish a recipe book, I'll definitely go out and buy one =) I've already given some of your recipes to my friends!

  3. What a fun post!
    Looking forward to the future food posts you talked about...and of course more yummy recipes.

    Truly Sarah, my family thanks you from the bottom of our bellies :)

    p.s I'd buy your cookbook too!

  4. awesome sarah! thanks so much =) i can't wait to a sarah short recipe book one day. i know it will be awesome!!

  5. I'm going to start saving for a new DSLR camera! Thanks so much for all your tips!

  6. This is another one of your most fun posts! I love all your posts for different reasons, but this one definitely goes under FUN. I have looked many times at WS and decided on exact Le Creuset you chose right down to the oval. That REALLY tickled me that you chose the same one!!!! It’s on my ‘to buy’ list.

    I have made many of your recipes but haven’t responded. I'm sorry and that won’t happen again. I can’t remember the correct recipe names, so here goes… Spinach Dip is absolute perfection. Chicken Bacon Caesar Stromboli was a HUGE to die for hit at the super bowl, along with the spinach dip and the awesome potato skins!!! Beer Bread is YUMMY and I eat way too much when I make it WEEKLY! The Tortilla Soup is fantastic. (I added a can of green chilies…don’t know why…just did.) IMO, creamy mashed potatoes are better with the sour cream than the buttermilk. Homemade pasta sauce is the best! The chicken and broccoli shells are yummy. Moms roast beef – wonderful! The soup base you recommended is great, so I’ve switched. Zucchini Quiche is heaven on earth. Cream of Potato soup is out of this world. Yum! Yum! Streusel-Filled pumpkin roll is more than delicious, and same with the apple crisp. I even bought the apple peeler and the exact same dish that you put yours in. (I am pitiful, aren't I?) Omelet for two is sooo good. And the last one I can think of, even though I know there are more is the perfect homey goodness of your Chicken Pot Pie.

    I have printed every single one of your recipes and filed them in a binder. That will have to do until you publish your cook-book. The fun part is taking it out of the binder (after I've looked for it forever) as I cook it gets absolutely spattered, and then I print a brand new clean one to replace it !!! :=)

    PS Mom's chocolate chip cookies are the bomb!

    Thank you so much for all of your hard work and for sharing them with your FANS!!!

  7. I have followed your blog for so long now and NEVER left a comment! But today I just had to. I wanted to ask if its OK that I linked to your blog from mine? I have a blog crush of the week where I share my favorite blog and this week I picked yours! I sure hope that's OK. {If not just let me know} I have made so many of your recipes and LOVE them! From a big fan Karen~

  8. That was a lot of interesting questions, and great answers! I'm with Monica - if you publish a recipe book, I'll buy one too. I will expect an autograph though!

  9. Shoot, guess I'm not coming to live with you. It was worth asking :D

    Lindsey makes a great hummus if you are looking for suggestions on that one. She'd love to share.

  10. work so hard to please your readers. Amazing.

    So we had a church dinner on Sunday evening, and one of the women comes up to me while I'm at the dessert table....."By the way, that one is a Short Stop recipe." SERIOUSLY!!! She can't remember if she found you through my blog, but I love being able to say I was roommates with and really KNOW the FAMOUS SS!!! Love you.

  11. I just LOVE your recipes and the way you post about them. I feel like I am sitting down with you over a meal and we're just talking about something you whipped up the other day and how I must try it. And I gotta say, I try almost all of them. And Love em!

    Keep cooking, and writing, and sharing! I love it (and you)!

  12. I can sooooo relate to the 'hour before daddy comes home' craziness! Thanks for some of the suggestions for getting through.